Philadelphia native Dr. Ala Stanford had been all over the city, administering free COVID-19 tests with her staff to anyone who wanted them. Her husband was driving the van, and her pastor was running logistics with local churches on speed dial. Scanning the philadelphia.gov website, they picked out viral hot spots by zip code and then raced to set up testing sites at places of worship, community centers, and parks. Often, they ended up in predominantly Black communities, which have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic and where residents have had the most difficulty getting tested because of a lack of insurance or access to adequate health care facilities. At the peak, Dr. Stanford and her assistants were testing roughly 50–60 people an hour for five to six hours straight, averaging 300–400 people per day. And she started it all out of her own pocket.
“Our mantra,” Stanford says, “is access, empathy, and action for the people we serve—the folks of Philadelphia.”
Due to lockdowns, worship centers were closed—which made it easy for Stanford and her crew to set up in atriums and parking lots, where they were provided space and electricity. Out in the weather, the only day they cancelled was when Hurricane Isaias hit the East Coast. By August, Stanford figures they had tested nearly 10,000 people.
When they started in April, supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) were already tight, and there weren’t yet any federal or state funds allocated for the pandemic response. “All the money was my bank account,” Stanford says, “and the PPE was from my office.” Anticipating the need, in March she had stocked up on enough N95 respirators to get her team started. A month later, they had a mobile unit and were on the move.
“We test everybody,” Stanford says, “folks that are definitely undocumented, folks that English is not their first language, folks that don’t have insurance—we don’t turn anybody away.”
And insurance or no, Stanford doesn’t charge anyone. “We absorb the cost,” she says. Through the CARES Act and private insurers, she can file for some reimbursement; but she waives anything that would otherwise be billed to the patient. “When I say it’s no cost, it’s no cost,” she says. “Our job as health care professionals is to first do no harm. And if you're not providing access, to me that is doing harm.”
Throughout the pandemic, African American communities have been disproportionately hard hit. As of August, 52 percent of Philadelphia’s coronavirus cases were in predominantly Black neighborhoods, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in hot spot counties across the country, African American and Hispanic/Latino residents were six times more likely to die than their white counterparts. “It's crazy,” Stanford says, “and this is regardless of insurance or preexisting conditions. These are things that have to do with injustices in our health care system, that the only people that are going to fix them are us, the health care people, from the inside out.”
So Stanford formed the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium and is working with city government and hospitals to provide barrier-free access to testing across the city. “Commissioner Farley and I communicate almost every day now,” Stanford says. “He has the power to mandate things in the city, and I am in the community, seeing what people are experiencing—and those together allow us to be a powerful force.”
Inspiration and Hard Work
Stanford’s convictions, her empathy and devotion, are deeply rooted in family and community.
When she was born in north Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood, her mother was just 14. A few years later her father went off to college, and Stanford had to fend for herself and her younger brother. “My mom left for work at five or six in the morning because she went from the city all the way to the suburbs,” she recalls. “By the time she got home to us, it was nine o'clock at night. When your parents are working hard to make ends meet, you end up taking care of yourself. In essence, I raised my brother—and my mom will tell you that.”
Years later, Stanford chose to become a pediatric surgeon largely because of her childhood experience. “I felt like when kids came to me, there might be things that I recognized were happening in their life that I could help them with, aside from whatever operation they needed,” she says. “If there was a young mom, then she became my patient too and I would help them both.”
To get there, Stanford would spend a total of 18 years in training—starting at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College.
Arriving at Penn State wasn’t her first collegiate experience, though. As a fourth grader, Stanford was enrolled in classes at Drexel University for mentally gifted and academically talented students. “One day a week,” she recalls, “I was getting the subway, going to West Philly, seeing what a college campus was like, and that really opened my eyes. It was life changing for me.”
When she graduated high school early at 17, Stanford already knew she wanted to go to Penn State. “In Philly, everybody went to Penn State!” she says with a laugh. “A cousin I grew up with went to Penn State, and he was the only doctor I knew personally, ridiculously brilliant, and he was in the Eberly College of Science. So I said, ‘I'm going to Penn State!’”
Majoring in biology, Stanford also served as a Lion Ambassador, joined Alpha Kappa Alpha (“the same sorority as Kamala Harris!” she adds), and when she moved to University Park did work-study at the Paul Robeson Cultural Center. “Penn State was good for me,” she says. “It was a great education, and it was a good time. Good memories.”
Graduating a semester early, Stanford went to Harvard for a summer premed program before matriculating that fall at the Penn State College of Medicine. “That was another eye-opening experience,” she says. “My goodness, a kid from Philly being on the Harvard campus—really amazing!”
Completing her medical degree, residency, and fellowship, Stanford became the first African American female pediatric surgeon trained entirely in the United States—where Black women comprise a mere 0.69 percent of all surgeons nationwide. “As a kid, every time I said I wanted to do something, my mom would say, ‘Yes, you can,’” Stanford recalls. “She used to tell me and my brother all the time, ‘There's no such word as can't.’ And I say that to my children now.”
Initiative and Opportunity
Back in Philadelphia and operating at several hospitals, one day Stanford got a phone call from a mentor asking if she would make a house call for a VIP patient. Although as a pediatric surgeon she didn’t see adult patients regularly, she booked the appointment in the nearby town of Bala Cynwyd.
“I signed all these nondisclosures,” she recalls, “and I’m sitting there waiting, I don’t know who’s coming in. Then he walks through the door and he's like, ‘How you doin’? Will Smith.’”
The encounter would mark the beginning of a longstanding professional relationship and personal bond between the actor (also a Philly native) and Stanford, where she would work on site at remote movie sets and also serve as the Smith family’s private physician. With funding from the Will & Jada Smith Family Foundation, Stanford would even start a nonprofit—It Takes Philly—to help disadvantaged students from across the city.
“The whole name on the IRS determination letter is It Takes Philly Encouraging and Empowering Our Children to Aim High,” Stanford explains, “and the goal was to go into the Philadelphia school district, and also out here in Montgomery County, and expose kids to careers that they hadn't otherwise been exposed to—similar to the experience I had in grade school.”
Stanford took eighth graders from some of Philadelphia’s poorest-performing schools on field trips all over the city—meeting judges, journalists, doctors, and professional athletes—even traveling to Washington, D.C., to the White House and the U.S. Capitol building, where they met renowned congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis. “At the height of it,” she says, “it was pretty awesome.”
Stanford also began receiving referrals from Smith, ranging from professional athletes to home hospice patients, and so she decided to start her own concierge medical practice: R.E.A.L. Concierge Medicine. “R.E.A.L. stands for Robeson, Ellison, Ala, and Langston,” she explains. “Robeson and Langston are my twin boys and Ellison is my oldest, named after Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, and Paul Robeson.”
Making house calls for affluent clientele, Stanford used her windfall to also help the less fortunate. “Because I had this business,” she says, “I was able to supplement my income with the folks that had a lot, to take care of the folks that didn't.”
Meanwhile her sons were getting older, and Stanford wanted to spend more time with them and be more involved with their school. “The only way I could have that control over my life was to run my own business,” she says, “so that's when I created Stanford Pediatric Surgery.”
She continued to operate at the hospitals and retained her privileges there, but Stanford now paid herself. “That first year,” she says, “I made no money at all, because my startup costs took all the income I made from being a surgeon. But because I had my concierge business, I was sustainable.”
Stanford also kept her accounts with the insurers and diagnostic companies—so when the pandemic struck in early 2020, she had access to testing kits and labs to process them. Initially though, kits were tough to get, so Stanford called her physician friends. “I scooped up all of their kits,” she says, “and then, through my portal of my concierge business, I gave people the link and told them to go online and register if they wanted a test. And that's how we got started.”
At first, the crew went door to door. “Then it got to be too big,” Stanford says. “We spent too much time driving all over the city. We realized we could move each testing site, but it needed to be in the communities. So we started with churches. The first day we tested 15, the next day 150, the third day 400 people, and that's where we've been ever since April.”
Full Circle and Further
Despite the extraordinary challenges posed by this pandemic, Stanford wasn’t unprepared, as she drew on past experience—especially her work with Will Smith.
“Working with Will,” she says, “because he's never in one place, wherever we went we basically had to build an entire hospital. That, and doing mission trips in Haiti, I believe is what prepared me for this.”
Stanford’s mother has even come out of retirement to join the team. “She’s just the best,” Stanford says, her smile beaming. “I needed someone because people were calling for their results and we were out in the field. My mom wanted to be out volunteering, and I was like, ‘No, you're high risk. You can't be out.’ So she answers my phones three days a week, and it's really good having her there.”
With the pandemic showing no sign of easing, Stanford and her crew are rolling full speed ahead—and she isn’t showing any sign of easing, either.
“I believe that I have to see this through,” she says. “Period. When there's a vaccine, people are going to come to me, and I want to be a trusted voice and a trusted leader in underrepresented groups—that they know I'm going to tell them the truth. I don't have any ulterior motive. I'm here because I want to be here. And when you don't have any other agendas, you can speak truth to people.”
Looking past the pandemic, Stanford says she will continue working toward better, barrier-free health care in her community.
“I would like to have a Black Doctors Consortium Center for Health Equity,” she says, “to provide access and empathy and action, even teach people how to care for folks that don't look like them. I’d do a free clinic where folks could get their medications reviewed, get a second opinion. If they didn't have health care coverage or an insurance card, they could still get good care from board-certified specialists.”
Although African Americans represent 13 percent of the U.S. population, according to the American Medical Association they comprise only 4.8 percent of the nation’s practicing physicians, and in those numbers Stanford sees a bigger problem than just disparity.
“We know that African Americans, when cared for by African American physicians, tend to have better health outcomes,” she explains, “because there's a cultural competence that exists, a shared experience. How can we expect patients to follow a treatment regimen if we don't check to make sure they have access to what we’re prescribing? It's not just making a recommendation, but asking the next question—and that comes from there being more Black doctors.”
So when she’s not out in the streets testing for COVID, Stanford is applying for grants to make her center a reality. “I believe it will happen,” she says. “It's a lot, but I'm committed to it.”
Stanford is surely a pathfinder, a trailblazer, and above all true to her own vision.
“You have to set your own bar,” she says. “No one's going to know everything you can achieve but you.”
For her work with the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, she has even been featured on CNN, CBS This Morning, Good Morning America, and Global Citizen—just to name a few.
But when it comes up she simply smiles and says humbly, “I think it speaks to the fact that when you're doing the work for the right reasons, opportunities will come to you.”